Whatever happened to persuasion?

Hopi Sen has written an interesting blog post on how Labour adopting the policies desired by some of their lost voters would be a disaster for the country.

I was thinking about this issue at the weekend, after reading on the SNP voting to change their policy on whether an independent Scotland being a member of NATO. This was because regular polling showed that a majority of Scots want to remain in NATO, so the SNP’s anti-NATO policy was seen as a hindrance to the independence campaign. Leaving aside the implied assumption that the policies of a post-independence Scotland would be those of the SNP, it got me thinking on similar lines to Hopi – why is the prevailing political mood one of pandering to the electorate, rather than trying to persuade them to change their views?

The SNP’s policy shifting wasn’t an isolated incident. It’s common for just about all parties now to determine their polices on where the voters are, thus giving us a mad rush to the centre ground, rather than developing policies in line with principles and ideologies and then attempting to persuade the voters to come to them. I don’t think there was ever some golden age where politics was purely concerned with the latter – Roman politicians were often concerned with just what the populace would accept, for instance – but I’m sure the practice of politics was never quite as cynical as it is now. As I wrote a few months ago, so much of modern politics has become a big game for the participants where the important factors are winning and losing power, not what you do with that power when you get hold of it.

When the game is all that’s important, you no longer care about trying to shift the Overton window in your direction. Instead of setting out your stall and trying to convince people to come to you, you chase after them, happily shedding whatever bits of you they show any aversion to. But just because politicians have stopped trying to influence how people think, it doesn’t mean others have. The void is filled by unaccountable media organisations and shadily-funded pressure groups, gradually drawing opinions towards their favoured position, and all the time the politicos happily follow, led by the polls that tell them what to drop and what to adopt. Going back to Hopi’s post, there’s rarely any attempt to challenge these beliefs, no matter how impractical and unworkable they may be.

Some of my Liberal Democrat colleagues reading this might be feeling smug at this point, and imagining that what I’m saying doesn’t apply to us. Sorry folks, we’ve become just as bad. Maybe not quite to the extent that Richard Reeves and others have decreed as the future path for the party as a centre-right pandering machine, but I see far too many statements on the lines of ‘this policy is good, but are we sure people will like it?’ and I still smart from the last time Conference debated faith schools where several people pushed a ‘don’t do what’s right, do what won’t offend the Daily Mail’ line.

If we’re too scared to make the case for liberal policies, who will?

What I want to see is us taking the bold approach. Rather than joining the mass dash towards the centre, let’s properly make the case for liberalism and persuade people of its merits and how it would benefit them. There’s a growing number of people who don’t vote because politics doesn’t speak to them and engage them, and we do nothing to bring them back to the polling stations if we join the others in mindless pandering. It’s not a disaster if someone disagrees with you, it’s a sign of a healthy democratic process where people have different opinions and there’s some distance between them. There’s no shame in debating and arguing what’s the best way forward, in saying ‘this is my truth, tell me yours’. We should be prepared to stand up and push for radical and different policies, in an attempt to shift the perception of what’s possible. Arguing for what we think is right isn’t something we should shy away from.

3 thoughts on “Whatever happened to persuasion?”

  1. I agree in general about the dangers of pandering and letting your opponents shift the Overton window, but I don’t think it applies to the SNP – rather, that’s the problem of having a party based on a single issue that’s neither Left nor Right.

    Whatever policies the SNP may have on other issues, they’re all pretty much definitionally less important than that of Scottish independence. If there were a Left SNP and a Right SNP existing as separate parties jointly campaigning for independence but disagreeing on everything else, then it’d be different – but that isn’t the case.

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